Posted by on October 12, 2012 in Blog
By Emily Jabareen
2012 Fall Intern
In what could be considered an archival gem for policy buffs and fans of President Kennedy alike, a letter was unearthed documenting John F. Kennedy’s early thoughts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter, produced in 1939, was found among writings and papers collected by the former president’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, and was addressed to Kennedy’s father. In the letter, the young Harvard student delivers the first articulations of a rudimentary foreign policy on the issue of Israel-Palestine, based on a pragmatic outlook and keen observations made during his first trip to the region.
The letter is absent of any of the political determination and eloquently-stated positions customary in Kennedy’s presidential speeches, yet it provides an unusual window into the mind of someone genuinely struggling to understand the complexity of historical events taking place, and grappling with the formative political realities underlying the emerging conflict. Kennedy’s visit occurred shortly after the publication of the White Paper, the second attempt to reconcile the interests of the parties mired in the territorial struggle for the land of Palestine. The White Paper, pushed forward by British Colonial Secretary Malcolm MacDonald, had at the time been rejected by both Jews and Palestinians.
In light of the facts on the ground, the White Paper proposed the establishment of a bi-national state, governed in proportion of the citizenship composition that already existed in Palestine, and placed an annual cap on Jewish immigration to the territory. Though the proposed nature of the recommended state was to be Arab, the formation of government was to occur through appointment rather than elected assembly, a stipulation that threatened Palestinian cultural and political institutions.
Kennedy sets out to delineate the fears and concerns that resulted in the rejection and puts forth his own solution, a process he calls “a development of the White Paper”. He also expands upon his personal objections to the White Paper which highlight his approach to the conflict generally. Refreshingly, Kennedy does not couch his arguments in the immutable language of rights, but only asserts those rights afforded in legal documents, making the exception of Britain’s natural right to “safeguard its interests” as a legitimate regional administrator and arbiter. Kennedy summarizes Britain’s obligation to Jews and Palestinians as one defined by its verbal commitments and diplomatic promises to the parties, not from a deeper natural right of the parties to statehood.
Kennedy describes Britain’s commitments to Arabs and Jews as “vague” and “indefinite” so as to make it “not clear who has a fairer claim” over the territory. Under such circumstances, he notes, Britain’s best option is to present a situation that will, to an extent, grant each party what it is owed in agreement. Kennedy does recognize that a viable solution hinges on the acceptance of the parties, and to that effect presciently states that though the formal objections expressed by both parties to the White Paper were valid, greater objections, rooted in the aspirations and existential fears of the parties, are the real cause for the refusal. He lamentingly says: “I have never seen two groups more unwilling to try and work out a solution that has some hope of success than these two groups.”
In outlining a solution, Kennedy implicitly makes the case that a meeting point will not occur with the complete appeasement of either party. Instead, a middle ground offering both parties autonomy and limited interference with each other should be sought. He also mentions that Jerusalem should remain an independent or neutral zone, a solution which is highly reminiscent of the UN partition plan produced eight years later and bares a crude resemblance to the often recommended two-state solution.
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In contrast to his later position as president, born in all probability in response to Soviet threats, that solely stressed the importance of cultivating a close political and military alliance with Israel, Kennedy plainly asserts that international, in this case British, force should be placed on both parties to agree to a solution that is “not fair or just” but “that works”, if the parties fail to come to such a solution themselves. Today, the peace process is facing stalemate yet again, and tensions remain high. As the conflict grows more intransigent, one wonders whether a simple Kennedy approach was ever in order.